After its big referendum victory last week, Ohio teachers union vice president Bill Leibensperger said “There has always been room to talk. That’s what collective bargaining is about. You bring adults around a table to talk about serious issues.” He voiced an argument made by union supporters through the fight over Senate Bill 5 (and the similar battle in Wisconsin over public sector union rights): All employees want is the right to bargain; they are more than willing to make concessions during these difficult times.
And to be sure, you can find examples of unions—of police, firefighters, even teachers—who have agreed to freeze wages or reduce benefits in order to protect the quality of services or keep colleagues from being laid off. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Consider the survey of big-city school district leaders published by the National Council on Teacher Quality a few weeks ago. When asked how they “reduced their budget gaps” over the past two years, fewer than half had eliminated or limited cost of living raises for teachers, only 30 percent cut automatic step increases, and just 13 percent trimmed benefits. In other words, in the midst of the Great Recession and historic unemployment, teachers in the vast majority of urban districts continued to get raises and generous healthcare and retirement benefits. So what exactly are their unions conceding? In fact, more districts cut the number of working days for teachers than addressed the spiraling cost of health benefits. Whose interests are we putting first?